Speaking Their Language
Every month volunteers help needy homeowners in South County with repairs and maintenance - a lifeline for some to stay in their homes. Neighbors Helping Neighbors RI provides the materials and the manpower at no cost, and has grown significantly since the effort began several years ago. This month Jim Hummel interviews two leaders of the group, who talk about the impact the non-profit organization is having in the southern part of Rhode Island.
Click here for more information about Neighbors Helping Neighbors.
I’m Jim Hummel and this month’s Rhode Island Spotlight focuses on a volunteer organization whose name pretty much says it all: Neighbors Helping Neighbors RI. Our story is made possible by VIBCO - a prominent Rhode Island manufacturer for more than 50 years that has grown into a nationally-known company based in right here in South County - just like Neighbors Helping Neighbors.
From the sawing.
To the nailing.
To the shoveling.
And the hammering…
It was a busy - and productive - weekend last month, as dozens of volunteers fanned out across South County to tackle construction projects that the owners of these homes could not afford to do themselves.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors RI is the outgrowth of a Faith in Action group based out of St. Andrew Lutheran Churchin Charlestown. Three years ago the group formed its own non-profit organization and has grown to 125 members that go well beyond the church.
The focus: people in need living in South County
Plunkett: ``In order for them to stay in their homes, sometimes they just need a boost.’’
Greg Plunkett is a retired school superintendent from Connecticut who now lives in Charlestown. His expertise is on the administrative side, helping line up and coordinate the volunteers.
``And there are places where they can go to get clothing, there are places where they can go to get assistance for heat, there’s places they can go and get assistance for food. As far we know, we’re one of the only places who can help them with repairs to them homes. And so we feel in a small way we can help somebody and help them stay in their home and stay independent.’’
Jaquith: ``You see the before and after pictures and you see especially the look on people’s faces that receive the help. And you’re like `Wow, this is what we need to be doing in the community.’’’
Susan Jaquith is retired executive who also lives in Charlestown.
Jaquith: ``It’s very hard to ask for help and a lot of people we help used to have good jobs and they used to be working or they weren’t always single parents. You know, they’re in in circumstances now that suddenly put them on the other end of the spectrum they never expected to be in.’’
The organization typically schedules one big weekend in the spring and one in the fall to do multiple projects throughout South County. On the third weekend of May we caught up with a painting crew at the home of a 96-year-old woman in Charlestown, whose house was transformed by the end of the day.
Just down the road in Westerly a crew was hard at work rebuilding a rotted deck in the back yard of a disabled, low-income homeowner.
Stedman: ``I have been very very fortunate. When I put out a call for help, I’ve always had people respond. Why? I don’t know.’’
Roger Stedman, who began in construction 50 years ago, worked alongside his son-in-law, two grandsons and a friend to complete the deck over two days. Stedman is a member of St. Andrew church and has watched the program grow.
Stedman: ``The resident can’t afford to hire someone to paint, or perhaps even to pay for the paint, because paint is pretty expensive today. So if we come in and do some of that maintenance work for them, that allows them to continue to pay their mortgage , buy their pills, go get food. ‘’
And in North Kingstown, Kay Cutting watched as a crew that included her daughter and son-in-law installed a ramp from her back door to driveway. Mrs. Cutting has had increasing trouble walking and stairs have become difficult to negotiate.
Plunkett: ``We have a number of families who come together to volunteer, not necessarily with a lot of skills, but they make it a family affair to come and spend four or five hours, or sometimes the whole day working on one of these projects.’’
All projects begins with this one-page application, which asks what needs to be done and the income level of the homeowner.
Plunkett: ``When we get an application one of the first things we do is send two people out, one to talk with the homeowner and one to look at the work that needs to be done and what’s involved. So people with experience who can kind of make a judgment on what needs to be done. Then when we actually get to the job site and we bring in other people, we have a couple of people who are familiar with the situation, so that they know, they’ve sort of planned out what has to be done that day. And then the other volunteers who come along, they can just help and do whatever needs to be done in order to accomplish it.’’
Jaquith: ``We want to make sure we’re fair to everybody. That we’re servicing real needs and not just maybe `I want to change the color of my living room walls.’ We don’t want to be putting our volunteers and funds on that kind of thing: So we very careful.’’
Hummel: ``Clearly more people applying, more people volunteering. How is the supply compared to the demand right now?’’
Jaquith: ``We are balancing, but as I said, we’re feeling the growth right now and one of the signs on growth is we’re starting to get more back-to-back requests. So before, we would give people time to rest, our volunteers would step up do an amazing and heroic weekend, and then they’d get a little down time. Well we’ve already got a backlog.’’
Last year they did a total of 27 projects.
Plunkett: ``We do work every month, we try to do as least one project. We kind of save the major projects, like a roof, or anything that involves a large number of people, so we can do that on a Saturday or a weekend, during the year.’’
Hummel: ``What are your needs going forward?’’
Plunkett: ``The more jobs we do, the more our name gets known in South County and so the more requests we have for work. And as those requests begin to increase it means we need funds, but in addition to that we need volunteers. And not just people who can paint or hammer nails, or work on the site. We certainly need that. There needs to be an organization behind all of that. To make all of that happen and we need people who are willing to work on the organizational side as well.’’
Jaquith: ``You don’t have to volunteer and contribute to this effort by being good on a job site, you can also lend other skills to the need.’’
By the end of last month’s weekend, the Westerly homeowner had this brand new deck, and Kay Cutting opened her back door to see this, later giving it a test-run for us with her walker. These were two of nine projects completed that weekend.
Hummel: ``And what did you think as you watched them working that day?’’
Cutting: ``Oh I was just overcome, overwhelmed. And I didn’t know it was going to be 20 feet long, this beautiful ramp. And I never could have afforded it myself, and it’s not costing me a dime, which is just more overwhelming. So I saw God’s work right in front of me.’’
Plunkett: ``When you think of South County, you think of the beach at Narragansett, you think of Watch Hill, you think of Newport, you think of all of these places where there’s a lot of wealth. But that’s not all that there is in South County. There’s an awful lot of people who are seasonal workers, older people who are living on a fixed income, single parents. And in order for them to stay in their homes sometimes they just need a boost. They need some help.’’
Jaquith: ``When you communicate the specific need, it becomes real. As far as this generic `we need help, we need people, we need funds.’ That’s so different than `there’s a woman that can’t get out of her house because she’s in a wheelchair. Or a vet who can’t get into his bathroom because the doorway is too small.’ It becomes real.’’
So why this collective effort?
Jaquith: ``I guess it’s that look on the person’s face that you think that could be my mother, that could be me!
In Charlestown, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.